Oct 18 2011

Camping’s Doomsday Prophesy

Harold Camping is now, among other things, an IgNobel Laureate. He shares the 2011 IgNobel award for mathematics: “for teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations.”

This Friday, October 21, Camping predicts the world will end – making him just another doomsday crank. He came by this date through a complicated and thoroughly contrived calculations involving the Bible. It’s not the first time. He predicted the world would end in 1994. It took him a while to recover from that lack of the end of the world back then.

He became more widely known for his recent prediction of the rapture on May 21 of this year. This was frequently misrepresented as a prediction for the end of the world, but Camping only predicted that the world would be wracked with earthquakes – that there would be obvious signs of God’s wrath and the faithful would be raptured and spared. The earth would then suffer God’s wrath for five months until the final destruction of the world  – which brings us to this Friday, October 21.

The first phase of his two-phase prediction did not work out very well. May 21 came and went without anything unusual happening. At first Camping and his followers were perplexed – how could the careful mathematical calculations have led them astray (never mind the dubious underlying assumptions).

But if there is one thing that Doomsday cults teach us is that the human capacity for rationalization is limitless. In general, people do not like to be wrong. We are protective of our self and public image, and are generally adept at deflecting criticism and accusation of error. When the stakes get high, so does the motivation for rationalization.

Imagine how high the emotional stakes must be for a group of people who went on a campaign to tell the world that the rapture was coming, and then – fizzle. They must realize that they earn the prize for the greatest chumps of the month, which automatically enters them to win the grand prize as greatest chumps of the year.

So it didn’t take them long to come up with their juicy rationalization – well, the judgment did occur, it was just a spiritual judgment, not a physical judgment, hence the conspicuous absence of earthquakes or any other physical manifestation. This is not an uncommon form of rationalization – when the predicted thing does not manifest, the true-believer can always claim that the thing did manifest, but that it is invisible or undetectable. It’s a convenient way to insulate a belief from falsification.

Some people do quietly drift away – and Camping’s followers have been dwindling. People rarely openly admit error, however. They are more likely to just move on and pretend nothing happened. When they do admit error then they need a face-saving strategy, which usually is to portray themselves as victims. They were conned by an especially slick con-artist.  Whatever helps you get up in the morning.

My point is not really to be critical but to point out that this behavior is a result of universal human psychology. We all hide from our mistakes, to some degree, or at least have some strategy to protect our egos from the implications of terrible error. We can’t really change this, but we can mitigate the effects by being aware of it. We can utilize more adaptive rationalizations -“Hey, we’ll all imperfect humans. We all make mistakes, as long as you admit them and learn from your mistakes.” It’s still a rationalization, but at least it’s a healthy way to move forward.

I admit I have a morbid fascination for extreme rationalizations. How do people react when their error is monumental and undeniable? It’s like seeing a really horrific car crash. You know you shouldn’t take some pleasure in seeing it, but you can’t help looking.

So on Saturday, assuming the world does not end, I will be surfing the web looking for accounts of the reaction of Camping and his followers to the non-end of the world. We know it’s coming.

I predict this time they will be better prepared. In May they seemed to be truly taken aback, and needed a day or two to figure out their rationalization. This time I think they will have rationalizations at the ready.

Camping is already preparing the way. NPR reports that he recently said:

“The end is going to come very quietly, probably within the next month,” Camping said.

They note the “probably,” – not as cocky as he has been previously. This is anticipatory rationalization, giving yourself an out in anticipation of future error. His followers are likely picking up on this as well.

In any case, we’ll see on Saturday.

11 responses so far

11 thoughts on “Camping’s Doomsday Prophesy”

  1. locutusbrg says:

    I think probably, maybe, the world will be destroyed in about 500 million years, give or take about 1 million. I am 100 percent certain. The prophet Phil Plait told me so in a vision.
    Now send me your money so that we can begin building our giant signal flare to get help from the the aliens. I will of course send you your power band sweat suit and do it yourself head shaving kit at no extra charge with your donation.
    123 Fake Street
    Providence RI, 02832

    Money back guarantee if the world does not end.

  2. cjablonski says:

    Since there’s a nonzero chance the world will end on Saturday, and repenting potentially has infinite benefit, isn’t following Camping simply a specialized case of Pascal’s Wager?

    Oh right, it’s too late now. I was already judged last May. Nertz.

  3. SARA says:

    We all do it. To make fun of Harold for doing it is fun. But its foolish to assume we don’t do it too.

    I wonder sometimes if we wouldn’t all be a bit more insane if we didn’t have that capacity reframe out actions or beliefs in the face of contradiction or condemnation from others. A giant leap to an entirely opposing different view point must be a terribly hard thing on a psyche.

  4. ccbowers says:

    “We all do it. To make fun of Harold for doing it is fun. But its foolish to assume we don’t do it too.”

    Come on. The problem isn’t that he doesn’t change his mind in light of new evidence (of course we all do this to varying degrees and applied skepticism helps keep us honest)… the problem is that he is predicting the rapture and end of the world. Since there is no reasonable basis for his predictions and he has/had a following, people find it amusing to see how he and his followers react after his prediction does not come true.

    Its more about staring at the “crazies” rather than laughing at a person who won’t adjust his beliefs to new evidence. If anything I think Americans have the opposite problem of citicizing those who do change their minds in light of new evidence (e.g. the term flip flopper)

  5. BillyJoe7 says:

    “We can utilize more adaptive rationalizations”

    How do you rationalise using utilize when using use would serve your purpose equally well with two less syllables?

  6. TylerR says:

    @BillyJoe7: How do you rationalize debating four letters in an ~800 word blog post?

  7. tmac57 says:

    I usually ignore errors in a blog post,but this one tickled me:

    ”Hey, we’ll all imperfect humans. We all make mistakes…”

    Regarding Camping,is it just me, or are doomsday predictors just not as accurate as they use to be?

  8. tmac57 says:

    BillyJoe7-Still utilizing that same hobby horse eh?

  9. daedalus2u says:

    Utilize has the connotation of both being an active choice and an action. Use is just an action. To actively choose a specific rationalization method is to utilize one. To adopt a rationalization strategy by default is to use one.

  10. jre says:

    My dad used to tell a joke about an astrophysicist who gave a lecture on the sun’s expected lifecycle. After the talk, one member of the audience, obviously agitated, approaches him.

    “Excuse me, professor, but when did you say the sun was going to run out of fuel?”

    “In about five billion years.”

    “Oh, thank God. I thought you said five MILLION years.”

  11. ChrisH says:

    Ever since I spent a day as a kid very scared that a good chunk of the state I lived in was going to fall into the ocean due to an idiotic psychic, I really really hate doomsday predictions that frighten children.

    Apparently I am not the only one, some other bloggers have been getting messages of children frightened by the 2012 nonsense. So they created the http://www.2012hoax.org/ website.

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